Who would have thought: Popeye the Sailor may have been right all along and spinach could give you bigger muscles. But it’s not spinach’s iron where it’s at, it’s the nitrate.
Spinach And You Go Boom
If you remember who Popeye is, then you most likely also remember him gulping down a can of spinach and, boom, huge muscles instantly growing on his arms.
But why assign that quality to spinach, of all things? In 1929, when Popeye first appeared, for children the bitter taste of spinach was right up there on the eek scale with cod liver oil, that back then was only available in bottles and believed to do miracles for children’s health. With the best intentions parents administered it with the help of a spoon, which resulted in you getting a mouthful of fish oil, able to taste it in all its gruesome fishy glory.
Well, the reason for believing in spinach making you strong was an 1870s study that had found vast amounts of iron in spinach and the creator of Popeye had picked up on that. Much later, and probably to the relief of some children, it turned out that whoever wrote that paper probably had had a bad morning and placed a decimal in the wrong spot – spinach has only 1/10th of the iron previously believed.
It’s The Nitrate
But enough of history, because Popeye may have been right, after all: a Swedish study tested what will happen when mice are given water with ample amounts of nitrate added to it, nitrates being groups of atoms within molecules, responsible for specific chemical reactions of the molecules.
The result? The mice given the nitrate developed much stronger muscles than their compadres who hadn’t. The most interesting fact about this is that the nitrate apparently exclusively targeted fast-twitch muscles, which are responsible for the size of muscles and do the bulking bit when you work out.
Andrés Hernández, the study’s lead author assumes that this is due to the nitrate raising the amount of two proteins within muscles, which in turn is responsible for more calcium being in the fast-twitch fibers. This effect may allow them to last longer when stressed.
And for those of you who have been keeping track about that spinach connection I so beautifully used to open this article: spinach contains a copious helping of nitrate.
The Mice In Us
But, as always, caveat emptor, folks. Before you now raid the nearest spinach plantation keep in mind that what happens in mice doesn’t necessarily happen in the same way in humans.
There has been a small study with human particpants at the same Swedish institute, where a similar effect was noticeable, but until researchers conduct the larger study with humans they are now planning, all this is preliminary.
Nonetheless, we may want to keep an eye on what comes off of this. So far there are no fitness supplements containing nitrate, but brace yourself for them popeyeng up all over the place.